Having fully established their unrivaled technical virtuosity on their excellent first two releases, California-bred nü-grass trio Nickel Creek’s Why Should The Fire Die? finds the band attempting to incorporate their disparate influences into a style that reflects the energy of their live shows and their progressive approach to traditional acoustic instrumentation. While their previous albums, both produced by Alison Krauss, gave their brand of polished, pop-leaning bluegrass a sound that was, above all else, classy, Nickel Creek (comprised of mandolinist Chris Thile, fiddler Sara Watkins, and her brother, guitarist Sean Watkins) did sound somewhat restrained, and their invigorating live performances bore this out. What’s immediately striking about Why Should The Fire Die?, then, is that producer Eric Valentine (who has previously worked with Queens of the Stone Age and Good Charlotte) has wisely chosen to foreground the urgency in the band’s playing. And it’s an appropriate stylistic decision, given that the songs Nickel Creek have composed have some genuine bite to them—songs like the pulsating, Celtic-inflected single “When In Rome” boast a sonic visceral punch to match their often heady lyrics. The talent has always been obvious, but now Nickel Creek is capitalizing on it by making a deliberate, confident step forward.
Much of the album has such an aggressive sound—“Best Of Luck,” in particular, wherein a high school student falls hard for her teacher, even gives sweet-voiced Sara the opportunity to snarl a little—that it’s easy to forget that it’s a purely acoustic affair, though the three instrumentals (the best of which is “Scotch & Chocolate,” sure to become the focal point of their concerts) serve as reminders. And even the more stripped-down numbers, like the old Sara’s old-timey shuffle, “Anthony,” show the same degree of growth as songwriters. The bridge of Sean’s “Somebody More Like You,” for example, ends with, “I hope you meet someone your height/So you can see eye to eye/With someone as small as you,” the kind of kiss-off line that seems a lifetime removed from the wide-eyed optimism of the band’s earlier songs, and the slow burn of Thile’s “Helena” concludes with an accusatory, “Cause Helena guys like me/Never sleep alone at night/I don’t need your sympathy/I’ll always be just fine.”
While their lyrics do tell compelling stories, Nickel Creek’s selling point remains their technical gifts and, again, Why Should The Fire Die? showcases a phenomenal learning curve. The complexity of the band’s arrangements and vocal harmonies recalls less their bluegrass contemporaries than prog-rock acts like Fiery Furnaces or the highbrow, sophisticated compositions of Brian Wilson. And, lest the bluegrass reference points scare anyone off, there’s nothing in Nickel Creek’s sound that could be mistaken for twang. Still, as accomplished and compelling as Why Should The Fire Die? ultimately is, the lasting impression it gives is one of a record that’s destined to become a “transitional album” in the catalogue of the most innovative, exciting artists in popular music. It’s great stuff, to be sure, and it should appeal to a broad audience and further expand Nickel Creek’s fanbase, but it promises that their follow-up will be even better.